Every story has “acts” to it. I’m not talking about the actions of a character specifically, but the stages of a play transpiring before an audience. Broadly speaking, classical stories have three acts to them in which the plot begins and ends. The first act is all about starting off the story and introducing characters to the viewership. Conversely, the third act focuses on concluding the story, typically with some sort of climactic crescendo. Pretty straightforward, right? So, what is the second act? While I could give you a hundred different answers, I will simply define the second act as a bridge between the start and finish.
While labeling something is easy, executing it is another matter entirely. The fact is that just about any halfway decent writer can kick off a story. Character introductions? Inciting events? Boom! Likewise, ending a story is pretty easy: “Chad lived happily ever after.” (There is an art to endings, but that is a different blog post.) Building the bridge between the two is where the elite writers stand apart from the average masses. Every story has to have a different kind of bridge, depending upon its starting and ending points. While fiction has nailed the first and third acts into a form of science (see every single Marvel movie), there is no blueprint upon which to base an original story’s second act.
There are, however, common themes that run through most second acts. Typically, these constitute themes of remembrance, relationships, and reconciliation. All three of these attributes should wind together into a singular thread, like in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Luke exits the first act on snowy Hoth but doesn’t reach the climax in Cloud City immediately. Instead, he journeys to the dank swamp of Dagobah in search of truths. There he finds the little green alien that aids him in the classic hero’s journey, where he learns all manner of things and departs with newfound strength. This is an ideal second act, if imperfect in some ways.
Honestly, the best second acts are the ones that provide such a smooth passageway between the start and finish that the viewership doesn’t even realize that they are traversing a bridge. Mad Max: Fury Road is a great example of this, sneaking the second act into one long explosive post-apocalyptic road trip that barely ever slows down. Lesser stories would have settled for Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy (the titular Max) stopping at a gas station for a long while and providing the audience with a great moment to run to the bathroom. Instead, the story has a nighttime shootout in the midst of scenic exposition relevant to the main story. No sagely advice required from a little green man.
So how does a writer go about crafting a deeply unique and highly customized second act? First of all, they need to figure out the first and third acts. It’s very hard to build a bridge in the middle of the ocean with no landmasses to attach it to. Only until the shorelines are properly determined can the foundation be laid. Granted, some adjustments must occur down the road, but they will be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the best example of this is Avatar: The Last Airbender. The creators of the show were not entirely sure of everything in the middle, but they had a clear start (the hero leaves the iceberg) and a definite conclusion planned (the hero ends the eternal war).
Next, every writer needs to determine the length of the bridge. While the second act of a movie might just be an hour in length, another fictional medium could have a much longer act. If someone is writing a seven book series, then several books could comprise what stage play would call act II. Sometimes a shorter span is in order, especially if lengthening the bridge would only drag out the narrative in a painful fashion. (Remember, the goal is to get from point A to B in the most logical and thoughtful way possible.) Finally, all of the characters need to traverse the bridge as smoothly as the viewership. Abrupt transitions never go well for anyone, fictional or nonfictional.
Can you think of a story that does the second act particularly well? Let me know in the comments!